The Ghosts of the Tsunami

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami killed thousands in Japan. Those left behind were haunted by the dead, and some were possessed by them.

Richard Lloyd Parry | Ghosts of the Tsunami | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | October 2017 | 19 minutes (5,224 words)

I met a priest in northern Japan who exorcised the spirits of people who had drowned in the tsunami. The ghosts did not appear in large numbers until autumn of that year, but Reverend Kaneta’s first case of possession came to him after less than a fortnight. He was the chief priest at a Zen temple in the inland town of Kurihara. The earthquake on March 11 was the most violent that he or anyone he knew had ever experienced. The great wooden beams of the temple’s halls had flexed and groaned with the strain. Power, water, and telephone lines were fractured for days; deprived of electricity, people in Kurihara, thirty miles from the coast, had a dimmer idea of what was going on there than television viewers on the other side of the world. But it became clear enough when first a handful of families, and then a mass of them, began arriving at Reverend Kaneta’s temple with corpses to bury.

More than eighteen thousand people had died at a stroke. In the space of a month, Reverend Kaneta performed funeral services for two hundred of them. More appalling than the scale of death was the spectacle of the bereaved survivors. “They cry,” Kaneta said. “There was no emotion at all. The loss was so profound, and death had come so suddenly. They understood the facts of their situation individually — that they had lost their homes, lost their livelihoods, and lost their families. They understood each piece, but they couldn’t see it as a whole, and they couldn’t understand what they should do, or sometimes even where they were. I couldn’t really talk to them, to be honest. All I could do was stay with them, and read the sutras and conduct the ceremonies. That was the thing I could do.”

Amid this numbness and horror, Reverend Kaneta received a visit from a man he knew, a local builder whom I will call Takeshi Ono.

***

Ono was ashamed of what had happened, and didn’t want his real name to be published. It was difficult at first to understand the reason for this shame. He was a strong, stocky man in his late thirties, the kind of man most comfortable in blue overalls, with a head of youthfully dense and tousled hair. “He’s such an innocent person,” Reverend Kaneta said to me. “He takes everything at face value. You’re from England, aren’t you? He’s like your Mr. Bean.” I wouldn’t have gone so far because there was nothing ridiculous about Ono. But there was a dreamy ingenuousness about him, which made the story he told all the more believable.

He had been at work on a house when the earthquake struck. He clung to the ground for as long as it lasted; even his truck shook as if it was about to topple over. The drive home, along roads without traffic lights, was alarming, but the physical damage was remarkably slight: a few telegraph poles lolling at an angle, toppled garden walls. As the owner of a small building firm, he was perfectly equipped to deal with the practical inconveniences inflicted by the earthquake. Ono spent the next few days busying himself with camping stoves, generators, and jerrycans, and paying little attention to the news.

But once television was restored, it was impossible to be unaware of what had happened. Ono watched the endlessly replayed image of the explosive plume above the nuclear reactor, and the mobile-phone films of the black wave crunching up ports, houses, shopping centers, cars, and human figures. These were places he had known all his life, fishing towns and beaches just over the hills, an hour’s drive away. And the spectacle of their destruction produced in Ono a sensation of glassy detachment, a feeling common at that time, even among those most directly stricken by displacement and bereavement.

“My life had returned to normal,” he told me. “I had gasoline, I had an electricity generator, no one I knew was dead or hurt. I hadn’t seen the tsunami myself, not with my own eyes, so I felt as if I was in a kind of dream.”

Ten days after the disaster, Ono, his wife, and his widowed mother drove over the mountains to see for themselves.

They left in the morning in good spirits, stopped on the way to go shopping, and reached the coast in time for lunch. For most of the way, the scene was familiar: brown rice fields, villages of wood and tile, bridges over wide, slow rivers. Once they had climbed into the hills, they passed more and more emergency vehicles, not only those of the police and fire services, but the green trucks of the Self-Defense Forces. As the road descended towards the coast, their jaunty mood began to evaporate. Suddenly, before they understood where they were, they had entered the tsunami zone.

There was no advance warning, no marginal area of incremental damage. The wave had come in with full force, spent itself, and stopped at a point as clearly defined as the reach of a high tide. Above it, nothing had been touched; below it, everything was changed.

This was the point at which shame entered Ono’s narrative, and he became reluctant to describe in detail what he did or where he went. “I saw the rubble, I saw the sea,” he said. “I saw buildings damaged by the tsunami. It wasn’t just the things themselves, but the atmosphere. It was a place I used to go so often. It was such a shock to see it. And all the police and soldiers there. It’s difficult to describe. It felt dangerous. My first thought was that this is terrible. My next feeling was ‘Is it real?’”

***

Ono, his wife, and his mother sat down for dinner as usual that evening. He remembered that he drank two small cans of beer with the meal. Afterward, and for no obvious reason, he began calling friends on his mobile phone. “I’d just ring and say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ — that kind of thing,” he told me. “It wasn’t that I had much to say. I don’t know why, but I was starting to feel very lonely.”

His wife had already left the house when he woke the next morning. Ono had no particular work of his own and passed an idle day at home. His mother bustled in and out, but she seemed mysteriously upset, even angry. When his wife returned from her office, she was similarly tense.

“Is something wrong?” Ono asked.

“I’m divorcing you!” she replied.

“Divorce? But why? Why?”

And so his wife and mother described the events of the night before, after the round of needy phone calls. How Ono had jumped down onto all fours and begun licking the tatami mats and futon and squirmed on them like a beast. How at first they had nervously laughed at his tomfoolery, but had been silenced when he began snarling, “You must die. You must die. Everyone must die. Everything must die and be lost.” In front of the house was an unsown field, and Ono had run out into it and rolled over and over in the mud, as if he was being tumbled by a wave, shouting, “There, over there! They’re all over there — look!” Then he had stood up and walked out into the field, calling, “I’m coming to you. I’m coming over to that side,” before his wife physically wrestled him back into the house. The writhing and bellowing went on all night until, around five in the morning, Ono cried out, “There’s something on top of me,” collapsed, and fell asleep.

“My wife and my mother were so anxious and upset,” he said. “Of course, I told them how sorry I was. But I had no memory of what I did or why.”

It went on for three nights.

The next evening, as darkness fell, he saw figures walking past the house: parents and children, a group of young friends, a grandfather and a child. “The people were covered in mud,” he said. “They were no more than twenty feet away, and they stared at me, but I wasn’t afraid. I just thought, ‘Why are they in those muddy things? Why don’t they change their clothes? Perhaps their washing machine’s broken.’ They were like people I might have known once or seen before somewhere. The scene was flickering, like a film. But I felt perfectly normal, and I thought that they were just ordinary people.”

The next day, Ono was lethargic and inert. At night, he would lie down, sleep heavily for ten minutes, then wake up as lively and refreshed as if eight hours had passed. He staggered when he walked, glared at his wife and mother, and even waved a knife. “Drop dead!” he would snarl. “Everyone else is dead, so die!”

After three days of pleading by his family, he went to Reverend Kaneta at the temple. “His eyes were dull,” Kaneta said. “Like a person with depression after taking their medication. I knew at a glance that something was wrong.” Ono recounted the visit to the coast, and his wife and mother described his behavior in the days since. “The Reverend was looking hard at me as I spoke,” Ono said, “and in part of my mind, I was saying, ‘Don’t look at me like that, you bastard. I hate your guts! Why are you looking at me?’”

Kaneta took Ono by the hand and led him, tottering, into the main hall of the temple. “He told me to sit down. I was not myself. I still remember that strong feeling of resistance. But part of me was also relieved — I wanted to be helped and to believe in the priest. The part of me that was still me wanted to be saved.”

Kaneta beat the temple drum as he chanted the Heart Sutra:

There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue,
no body, mind; no color, sound, or smell;
no taste, no touch, no thing; no realm of sight,
no realm of thoughts; no ignorance, no end
to ignorance; no old age and no death;
no end to age and death; no suffering,
nor any cause of suffering, nor end
to suffering, no path, no wisdom
and no fulfillment.

Ono’s wife told him later how he pressed his hands together in prayer and how, as the priest’s recitation continued, they rose high above his head as if being pulled from above.

gone gone gone beyond
gone altogether beyond
O what an awakening
— all hail!

The priest splashed him with holy water, and then abruptly Ono returned to his senses and found himself with wet hair and shirt, filled with a sensation of tranquility and release. “My head was light,” he said. “In a moment, the thing that had been there had gone. I felt fine physically, but my nose was blocked as if I’d come down with a heavy cold.”

Kaneta spoke sternly to him; both understood what had happened. “Ono told me that he’d walked along the beach in that devastated area, eating an ice cream,” the priest said. “He even put up a sign in the car against the windshield saying disaster relief, so that no one would stop him. He went there flippantly, without giving it any thought at all. I told him, ‘You fool. If you go to a place like that where many people have died, you must go with a feeling of respect. That’s common sense. You have suffered a kind of punishment for what you did. Something got hold of you, perhaps the dead who cannot accept yet that they are dead. They have been trying to express their regret and their resentment through you.’” Kaneta suddenly smiled as he remembered it. “Mr. Bean!” he said indulgently. “He’s so innocent and open. That’s another reason why they were able to possess him.”

Ono recognized all of this and more. It was not just the spirits of men and women that had possessed him, he saw now, but also animals — cats and dogs and other beasts that had drowned with their masters.

He thanked the priest and drove home. His nose was streaming as if with catarrh, but what came out was not mucus, but a pink jelly-like nothing he had seen before.

The wave penetrated no more than a few miles inland, but over the hills in Kurihara it transformed the life of Reverend Taio Kaneta. He had inherited the temple from his father, and the task of dealing with the survivors of the tsunami tested him in ways for which he was unprepared. It had been the greatest disaster of postwar Japan. And yet the pain did not announce itself; it dug underground and burrowed deep. Once the immediate emergency had abated, once the bodies were cremated, the memorial services held, and the homeless sheltered, Reverend Kaneta set about trying to gain entry into the dungeon of silence in which he saw so many of the survivors languishing.

He began traveling around the coast with a group of fellow priests, organizing a mobile event that he called “Café de Monku” — a bilingual pun. As well as being the Japanese pronunciation of the English word “monk,” monku means “complaint.” “We think it will take a long time to get back to a calm, quiet, ordinary life,” read the flyer that he distributed. “Why don’t you come and join us — take a break and have a little moan? The monks will listen to your complaint — and have a monku of their own too.”

Under this pretext — a casual cup of tea and a friendly chat — people came to the temples and community centers where Café de Monku was held. Many were living in “temporary residences,” the grim prefabricated huts, freezing in winter and sweltering in summer, where those who could afford nothing better ended up. The priests listened sympathetically and made a point of not asking too many questions. “People don’t like to cry,” said Kaneta. “They see it as selfish. Among those who are living in the temporary homes, there’s hardly anyone who has not lost a member of their family. Everyone’s in the same boat, so they don’t like to seem self-indulgent. But when they start talking, and when you listen to them, and sense their gritted teeth and their suffering, all the suffering they can’t and won’t express, in time the tears come, and they flow without end.”

Haltingly, apologetically, then with increasing fluency, the survivors spoke of the terror of the wave, the pain of bereavement, and their fears for the future. They also talked about encounters with the supernatural.

They described sightings of ghostly strangers, friends and neighbors, and dead loved ones. They reported hauntings at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns. The experiences ranged from eerie dreams and feelings of vague unease to cases, like that of Takeshi Ono, of outright possession.

It was not just the spirits of men and women that had possessed him, but also animals — cats and dogs and other beasts that had drowned with their masters.

A young man complained of pressure on his chest at night, as if some creature was straddling him as he slept. A teenage girl spoke of a fearful figure who squatted in her house. A middle-aged man hated to go out in the rain, because of the eyes of the dead, which stared out at him from puddles.

A civil servant in Soma visited a devastated stretch of coast and saw a solitary woman in a scarlet dress far from the nearest road or house, with no means of transport in sight. When he looked for her again, she had disappeared.

A fire station in Tagajo received calls to places where all the houses had been destroyed by the tsunami. The crews went out to the ruins anyway, prayed for the spirits of those who had died — and the ghostly calls ceased.

A taxi in the city of Sendai picked up a sad-faced man who asked to be taken to an address that no longer existed. Halfway through the journey, the driver looked into his mirror to see that the rear seat was empty. He drove on anyway, stopped in front of the leveled foundations of a destroyed house, and politely opened the door to allow the invisible passenger out at his former home.

At a refugee community in Onagawa, an old neighbor would appear in the living rooms of the temporary houses and sit down for a cup of tea with their startled occupants. No one had the heart to tell her that she was dead; the cushion on which she had sat was wet with seawater.

Such stories came from all over the devastated area. Priests — Christian and Shinto, as well as Buddhist — found themselves called on repeatedly to quell unhappy spirits. A Buddhist monk wrote an article in a learned journal about “the ghost problem,” and academics at Tohoku University began to catalog the stories. In Kyoto, the matter was debated at a scholarly symposium.

“Religious people all argue about whether these are really the spirits of the dead,” Kaneta told me. “I don’t get into it, because what matters is that people are seeing them, and in these circumstances, after this disaster, it is perfectly natural. So many died, and all at once. At home, at work, at school — the wave came in and they were gone. The dead had no time to prepare themselves. The people left behind had no time to say goodbye. Those who lost their families, and those who died — they have strong feelings of attachment. The dead are attached to the living, and those who have lost them are attached to the dead. It’s inevitable that there are ghosts.”

He said: “So many people are having these experiences. It’s impossible to identify who and where they all are. But there are countless such people, and their number is going to increase. And all we do is treat the symptoms.”

When opinion polls put the question “How religious are you?,” Japanese rank among the most ungodly people in the world. It took a catastrophe for me to understand how misleading this self-assessment is. It is true that the organized religions, Buddhism and Shinto, have little influence on private or national life. But over the centuries both have been pressed into the service of the true faith of Japan: the cult of the ancestors.

I knew about the household altars, or butsudan, which are still seen in most homes and on which the memorial tablets of dead ancestors — the ihai — are displayed. The butsudan are cabinets of lacquer and gilt, with openwork carvings of flowers and trees; the ihai are upright tablets of black lacquered wood, vertically inscribed in gold. Offerings of flowers, incense, food, fruit, and drinks are placed before them; at the summer Festival of the Dead, families light lanterns to welcome home the ancestral spirits. I had taken these picturesque practices to be matters of symbolism and custom, attended to in the same way that people in the West will participate in a Christian funeral without any literal belief in the words of the liturgy. But in Japan spiritual beliefs are regarded less as expressions of faith than as simple common sense, so lightly and casually worn that it is easy to miss them altogether. “The dead are not as dead there as they are in our own society,” wrote the religious scholar Herman Ooms. “It has always made perfect sense in Japan as far back as history goes to treat the dead as more alive than we do . . . even to the extent that death becomes a variant, not a negation of life.”

At the heart of ancestor worship is a contract. The food, drink, prayers, and rituals offered by their descendants gratify the dead, who in turn bestow good fortune on the living. Families vary in how seriously they take these ceremonies, but even for the unobservant, the dead play a continuing part in domestic life. For much of the time, their status is something like that of beloved, deaf, and slightly batty old folk who cannot expect to be at the center of the family, but who are made to feel included on important occasions. Young people who have passed important entrance examinations, gotten a job, or made a good marriage kneel before the butsudan to report their success. Victory or defeat in an important legal case, for example, is shared with the ancestors in the same way.

When grief is raw, the presence of the deceased is overwhelming. In households that had lost children in the tsunami, it became routine, after half an hour of tea and chat, to be asked if I would like to “meet” the dead sons and daughters. I would be led to a shrine covered with framed photographs, with toys, favorite drinks and snacks, letters, drawings, and school exercise books. One mother commissioned carefully Photoshopped portraits of her children, showing them as they would have been had they lived — a boy who died in elementary school smiling proudly in high-school uniform, an eighteen-year-old girl as she should have looked in kimono at her coming-of-age ceremony. Another decked the altar with makeup and acrylic fingernails that her daughter would have worn if she had lived to become a teenager. Here, every morning, they began the day by talking to their dead children, weeping love and apology, as unselfconsciously as if they were speaking over a long-distance telephone line.

The tsunami did appalling violence to the religion of the ancestors.

Along with walls, roofs, and people, the water carried away household altars, memorial tablets, and family photographs. Cemetery vaults were ripped open by the wave, and the bones of the dead scattered. Temples were destroyed, along with memorial books, listing the names of ancestors over generations. “The memorial tablets — it’s difficult to exaggerate their importance,” Yozo Taniyama, a priest friend of Kaneta’s, told me. “When there’s a fire or an earthquake, the ihai are the first thing that many people will save, before money or documents. I think that people died in the tsunami because they went home for the ihai. It’s life, the life of the ancestors. It’s like saving your late father’s life.”

When people die violently or prematurely, in anger or anguish, they are at risk of becoming gaki: “hungry ghosts,” who wander between worlds, propagating curses and mischief. There are rituals for placating unhappy spirits, but in the aftermath of the disaster, few families were in a position to perform these. And then there were those ancestors who lost all their living descendants to the wave. Their well-being in the afterlife depended entirely on the reverence of living families, which was permanently and irrevocably cut off: their situation was as helpless as that of orphaned children.

Tsunamis anywhere destroy property and kill the living, but in Japan they inflict a third kind of injury, unique and invisible, on the dead. At a stroke, thousands of spirits had passed from life to death; countless others were cut loose from their moorings in the afterlife. How could they all be cared for? Who was to honor the compact between the living and the dead? In such circumstances, how could there fail to be a swarm of ghosts?

It was in the summer after the tsunami that Naomi Hiratsuka began to speak to her dead daughter, Koharu. At first, and unlike most people she knew, she had hesitated. Shamanism, and varieties of mediumship, were deeply established in Tohoku, and many of the bereaved were turning to those who practiced them. Naomi had her doubts about the existence of such gifts, but above all she detested the way in which some people, especially in the media, treated the subject, in an effort to squeeze spooky entertainment out of tragedy. She had been especially sickened by an article in a Japanese magazine about teenagers daring one another to make nighttime visits to the site of Okawa Elementary School, in the hope of encountering its ghosts.

But the search for Koharu and the other missing children was going so badly, bogged down both in the literal mud and in a morass of bureaucratic complication. Naomi was in close touch with the police unit, which was carrying out its own search, and got to know its commanders. One day they made a suggestion that surprised her at the time — that if she knew of any mediums or psychics who had advice to offer, particularly about specific places to direct the search, she should pass it on.

A friend introduced her to a young man in his twenties who was known to have the ability to see and hear the dead. Recently, people said, he had heard a voice in a dense bamboo thicket by the Fuji lake — and when it was searched, bones were indeed found, and identified as the remains of a missing woman. Naomi arranged to meet the young psychic late one evening at the ruin of the school. It was the summer festival of Tanabata, the star festival, when people hang trees with handwritten poems and prayers, and with delicate paper decorations: streamers, purses, birds, dolls. They walked side by side in the humid darkness, between the shell of the school and the hill behind it. At a small shrine on the hill, Naomi tied decorations of her own around the bamboo and prayed for Koharu’s return. It was a hot, windless night, but the colored paper danced and shivered strangely in the motionless air. “It is the children who are moving the decorations,” the psychic said. “They are delighted with them.”

They walked past a long line of rubble, roughly heaped up into great mounds. Hundreds of people had died in this small area. It was possible that bodies were still contained within the heaps. The psychic said, “I can hear a voice. I think it is the voice of a woman, not a child.” And Naomi, straining, also heard it, although too faintly for the words to be distinguishable. “It was just an ordinary voice,” she said. “It sounded as if she was having an ordinary conversation. But when I looked around, there was nobody there.”

Naomi said, “I didn’t used to believe in such things, and I’d never had an experience like that before. But having lived through the disaster, having been through what I had, perhaps it’s quite natural that I would hear such a voice.”

She spent a lot of time with the young man. They walked together for hours through the wide environs of the school — around the Fuji lake, and as far in the other direction as the Nagatsuura lagoon. He gave Naomi a crystal on a length of cord, which she would hold suspended over a large-scale map in the hope of divining Koharu’s whereabouts. She told the police about the voice she had heard at the rubble mounds, and they were thoroughly sifted. But no human remains were found.

During their long walks, the young psychic would describe to Naomi the invisible scene surrounding them. One might have expected a consoling picture of life after death, but the vision he described was appalling. Naomi compared it to a famous Japanese horror film, Ring, which itself drew on the hell imagery of medieval art. “He said that there were pale figures like the ghosts in that film, many, many of them crawling on the ground. Some of them were stuck in the water, covered in mud, and swallowing the dirty water in terrible suffering. Some of them were trapped and trying to get out. But he couldn’t tell which of them were the spirits of people who had already been found, and which of them were those like my daughter, who were still missing.”

Naomi began to seek out other means of reaching the dead. The introductions were easily made — many of the Okawa mothers were consulting one psychic or another. Having started out a skeptic, she found herself holding conversations with Koharu herself.

The medium, whose name was Sumi, ran a small coffee shop in the city. Sometimes Naomi and Shinichiro went to see her in person; sometimes Koharu’s utterances were conveyed over the telephone, and even by e-mail and text message. But Naomi was quickly persuaded of their authenticity. Sumi conveyed so perfectly the tone and character of the Koharu that her family remembered — the chattiness, bossiness, and sweetness of a girl about to become a teenager. Through Sumi, Koharu dictated a detailed list of presents that were to be given in her name to members of the family — a particular kind of drawing pad and pencils for her brother, a pink bag for her little sister. She instructed Naomi to serve the family with powdered green-tea sweets, which she had always loved. But apart from the convincing childishness, there was an unexpected maturity in much of what she said, which might have been that of the medium, but which seemed at times to be the authority acquired by those, even in their young years, who have passed through death.

Koharu asked in detail about the well-being of her family, especially her siblings, and showed great concern about her mother’s career. “She seemed to think that Sae, the baby, would be okay,” Naomi said. “But she wanted me to give a lot more attention to Toma, who was older. And she told me to finish my maternity leave and go back to work. All of this helped, it helped us so much to carry on with an ordinary life, even after death. It was so welcome.”

What neither the medium nor the spirit ever seemed able to say was the thing Naomi most wanted to know: the resting place of Koharu, or her bodily remnant. “Sumi told us that finding the remains is not everything. She said, ‘You might think that the kids want their parents to find them, that they are desperate to go back home. But they are already home. They are already in a very good place. And the more you bury yourselves in the search, the more desperate you will become.’”

Naomi’s friend Miho visited another medium and drew the deepest consolation from her conversations with her missing daughter, Hana. “It was just like talking to her,” Miho said. “It was just as if Hana was standing there, at my side. She said that she was in heaven and that she was very happy. The woman knew all about our daily life, how Hana talked, the kinds of expressions she used. If she said that she was suffering, if she’d been crying for help, and saying, ‘Mum, get me out of here!’ I wouldn’t have been able to bear it. But the words I heard always made me feel calmer.”

Sometimes the messages from the dead contradicted one another. One of the first things Hana told her mother, Miho, was that she should not harbor any blame or resentment towards the teachers at the school. “The teachers are crying in heaven, and that is hard for us,” she said through the medium. “They are suffering, and watching them makes us children feel sad.” But another psychic, at another time, told Miho the opposite: that the children were bitter and angry towards the teachers for letting them die so needlessly, for failing to lead them to the obvious places of safety and survival.

* * *

From Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry. Published by MCD / Farrar, Straus and Giroux. © 2017 by Richard Lloyd Parry.